Cultivating Friendship in a Vaccinated World
I’ve lost the instinct to shake hands. After 15 months of not being allowed to extend my hand out as a welcoming gesture, it doesn’t even come to mind when I meet other vaccinated people. I’ve become comfortable with standing at a distance and saying, “Hello” or “How are you?” However, when someone does reach out their hand or offer a hug, I’m more self-conscious about human touch, then at any other point in my life. The pandemic has changed me and the way I relate to others.
In lieu of physical touch, many of our friendships have continued but they have become less physical and more virtual. I had never even heard of Zoom before 2020, but now it has replaced “Skype” in my vocabulary. The numbers alone prove how Zoom became the platform of choice for connecting with each other during the pandemic: “Zoom’s valuation exceeded $100 billion during the pandemic, a 383 percent increase on its value in January 2020.” In 2020, the virtual world became the meeting grounds for friendship, but at what cost?
In the Biblical book of Proverbs, the author provides short pithy sayings about living a life of wisdom. One aspect of the wise life is the need for close friends. Proverbs 18:24 reads, “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” The friend who sticks closer than a brother is the one who, as Robin Dunbar explains, “is your shoulders-to-cry-on friendships. They are the ones who will drop everything to support us when our world falls apart.” For many of us, during the pandemic, we felt like our worlds were falling apart, but we didn’t have our friend’s shoulders to cry on. We couldn’t risk coming that close, but now we can. And we need those friends now more than ever.
The virtual world was essential for connectivity during the pandemic, but now we must reengage our bodies in our friendships. Watching a funeral online, celebrating a birthday over Zoom, or witnessing a virtual wedding seems to lack so much of what we want and need on those momentous occasions because handshakes, hugs, or even just a pat on the back, are all ways that we greet and express love for our friends. John Swinton, professor of Pastoral Theology at the University of Aberdeen, says, “Friendship is something that we do with our bodies. It is a way of placing ourselves within creation wherein we adopt a posture of love and humility and seek to receive that which is offered to us by God and by others.” When we give and receive handshakes and hugs, we are giving and receiving the gift of friendship.
Permission has been given to physically touch other vaccinated people. Yet, many of us are still struggling to know what life in a vaccinated world is like. Our minds tell us that we are free to touch, but our bodies still sound the warning alarm every time we go in for a hug. A warning that cautions, “Is this safe?” This alarm may be fine with strangers, but it’s hindering our need for friendship.
So, how do we turn the volume down on our inner alarms when we go in for a hug or a handshake? One answer: practice. In Bessel Van Der Kolk’s well known book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, he says, that in order to recover from a traumatic event, we must allow our bodies to have experiences that contradict the “helplessness, rage, or collapse that result from trauma.” The trauma we have all experienced in the covid-19 pandemic has left us less able to trust our instincts, but the more times we shake hands, hug, and embrace our friends without getting sick, the more our minds will heal from the trauma and learn that it is safe to reconnect.
I love the way Ralph Waldo Emerson describes friendship, “A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.” Before and after vaccination, I’ve come to appreciate my friendships on a deeper level than ever before. First, by their absence, and then by their presence. So, I’m making every effort to cultivate my friendships in this vaccinated world. Won’t you join with me? Your friends need you and you need them.
Peace be upon you,
Chaplain Travis Jamieson
 Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books, New York, 2014. Pg 3